Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

The Jewish Contribution to Civilization

Reassessing an Idea
Jeremy Cohen & Richard I. Cohen

This book investigates the idea of a distinct ‘Jewish contribution to civilization’ as it has been understood from the seventeenth century to the present. Offering a broad spectrum of academic opinion, it explores the role that the concept has played in Jewish self-definition and how it has influenced the history of the Jews and of others. It also considers the centrality of the question in modern Jewish culture and for modern Jewish studies.

Contributors

David Berger. David Biale, Jeremy Cohen, Richard I. Cohen, Mark Gelber, Susannah Heschel, Elliott Horowitz, David N. Myers, Moshe Rosman, Daniel Schroeter, Yaacov Shavit

Contributor information

David Berger,Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University
David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, University of California, Davis
Jeremy Cohen, Abraham and Edita Spiegel Family Foundation Chair for European Jewish History, Tel Aviv University
Richard I. Cohen, Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies, Department of Jewish History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Mark H. Gelber, Professor of Comparative Literature and German-Jewish Studies, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva
Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College
Elliott Horowitz, Associate Professor of Jewish History, Bar-Ilan University, and co-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review
David N. Myers, Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
Moshe Rosman, Professor of Jewish History, Bar-Ilan University
Daniel Schroeter, Teller Family Chair in Jewish History, University of California, Irvine
Yaacov Shavit, Professor of Jewish History, University of Tel Aviv


More info

The biblical idea of a distinct ‘Jewish contribution to civilization’ continues to engage Jews and non-Jews alike. This book seeks neither to document nor to discredit the notion, but rather to investigate the idea itself as it has been understood from the seventeenth century to the present. It explores the role that the concept has played in Jewish self-definition, how it has influenced the political, social, and cultural history of the Jews and of others, and whether discussion of the notion still has relevance in the world today.

The book offers a broad spectrum of academic opinion: from tempered advocacy to reasoned disavowal, with many alternative variations on the theme in between. It attempts to illustrate the centrality of the question in modern Jewish culture in general, and its importance for modern Jewish studies in particular.

Part One addresses the idea itself and considers its ramifications. Richard I. Cohen focuses on the nexus between notions of ‘Jewish contribution’ and those of ‘Jewish superiority’‚ David N. Myers shifts the focus from ‘contribution’ to ‘civilization’, arguing that the latter term often served the interests of Jewish intellectuals far better. Moshe Rosman shows how the current emphasis on multiculturalism has given the idea of a ‘Jewish contribution’ new life. Part Two turns to the relationship between Judaism and other monotheistic cultures. Elliott Horowitz’s essay on the Sabbath serves as an instructive test-case for the dynamic and complexity of the ‘contribution’ debate and a pointer to more general, theoretical issues. David Berger expands on these in his account of how discussion of Christianity’s Jewish legacy developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Susannah Heschel shows how the Jewish–Christian encounter has influenced the study of other non-Western ‘others’. Daniel Schroeter raises revealing questions about the altogether Eurocentric character of the ‘contribution’ discourse, which also bore heavily on perceptions of Jews and Judaism in the world of Islam. Part Three introduces us to various applications and consequences of the debate. Yaacov Shavit probes the delicate balance forged by nineteenth-century German Jewish intellectuals in defining their identity. Mark Gelber moves the focus to the present and considers the postwar renewal of German Jewish culture and the birth of German-Jewish studies in the context of the ‘contribution’ discourse. Bringing this volume to its conclusion, David Biale compares three overviews of Jewish culture and civilization published in America in the twentieth and twenty-first-centuries.

 

About the authors

Jeremy Cohen holds the Abraham and Edita Spiegel Family Foundation Chair for European Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, where he served as Director of the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center between 2002 and 2005. A specialist in the history of Jewish–Christian relations and three times a winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his various publications include The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (1982); Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (1999); and Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (2007).

Richard I. Cohen holds the Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies and has served as the Academic Head of Revivim, the honours programme at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the training of Jewish studies teachers. He is the author of The Burden of Conscience: French-Jewish Leadership during the Holocaust and Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, and among books he has edited are The French Revolution and Its Historical Impact and Art and History. He has co-curated and co-edited (with Vivian Mann) From Court Jews to the Rothschilds: Art, Patronage, and Power, 1600-1800 and (with Laurence Sigal) Le juif errant: un témoin du temps.

Contents

Note on Transliteration and Conventions Used in the Text

Jeremy Cohen: Introduction

Part I Formulating the Question

1 Richard I. Cohen: ‘Jewish Contribution to Civilization’ and its Implications for Notions of ‘Jewish Superiority’ in the Modern Period
2 David N. Myers: Discourses of Civilization: The Shifting Course of Modern Jewish Motif
3 Moshe Rosman: From Counterculture to Subculture to Multiculture: The 'Jewish Contribution Then and Now'

Part II Judaism and Other Cultures

4 Elliott Horowitz: Day of Gladness or Day of Madness? Modern Discussion of the Ancient Sabbath
5 David Berger: ‘The Jewish Contribution’ to Christianity
6 Susannah Heschel: Judaism, Islam, and Hellenism: The Conflict in Germany over the Origins of Kultur
7 Daniel Schroeter: From Sephardi to Oriental: The ‘Decline’ Theory of Jewish Civilization in the Middle East and North Africa

Part III Jews, Germans, Americans

8 Yaacov Shavit: From Admission Ticket to Contribution: Remarks on the History of an Apologetic Argument
9 Mark H. Gelber: German–Jewish Literature and the Field of German–Jewish Studies
10 David Biale: Louis Finkelstein, Mordecai Kaplan, and American 'Jewish Contributions to Civilization'

Bibliography
Index